Some things inspire me, like Virgil's Aeneid and other great works of classical literature. Some things amuse me, in a rather smutty and much less highbrow way, such as American Pie. And some things worry me, such as the sexual fetish known as dippoldism and the shock site goatse.cx. But very rarely does something do all three at once.
Phantasmes, a collection of cartoons by the French cartoonist Jean-Marc Reiser, is one such thing. Published posthumously in December of 1983, it features 110 A4 pages of his works, most or all of which deal with sex. And they deal with sex in really quite an explicit and downright worrying manner. The cartoons in Phantasmes range from single-frame anecdotes, such as a picture of a man wearing a flasher's mac with his erect penis out, frigging furiously at it while a porno film plays on the TV before him, with the caption, "Moins de crimes sexuels depuis la vogue du porno: les assassins on les mains occupeés." (Transl: "Fewer sexual crimes committed since the trend for porn - the culprits all have their hands full."), to multi-page tales of sordidity. This latter category includes, most memorably, a man receiving oral sex from his lady friend while playing about with a calculator, and finally attaining orgasm upon having computed the average ejaculatory volume as 4.367cm³. As if this wasn't quite enough, he then proceeds to utterly exasperate his lady by further working out that, on average, there is a 20.8:1 wastage factor by weight in terms of sperm usage for the production of offspring. Not only that, but he then calculates that, in comparison with these figures, the one-third of a litre of tears produced per annum by an unhappy woman is "negligéable." Inspiring stuff, I think we can all agree!
Indeed, all manner of sex and sex-related topics are covered in Phantasmes, including bestiality, stuffing, the alleged harm that masturbation can do one, acromotophilia (!), worries about penis size, and a solution to overpopulation (This consists of a picture of the rear end of a woman with her vagina crossed out and an arrow indicating that the place to hide the sausage should be her anus.) In the deranged world of M. Reiser, the women are always up for it, and the men are always either perverts or have difficulty performing. Not only that, but in the case of the more, erm, experimental, individuals, they are presented in such a way that they seem to be able to logically justify their particular fetishes, albeit in a rather peculiar way. Case in point:
"C'est ça! Appelez la police; dites-leur qu'un type se masturbe devant votre cinema porno! Le temps qu'ils aient fini de rigoler, je me serai tapé trois branlettes!" (Transl: "Fair enough! Call the police; tell them that someone's masturbating in front of your porno cinema! And when they've finished laughing, I'll already have knocked at least three out!")
The artistic style with which the cartoons in Phantasmes are drawn seems to primarily revolve around line drawings and roughly done watercolours. Not for M. Reiser the exquisite oil-on-canvas of fellow French cartoonist Bernard Hislaire or anything of the sort; in his works, reality is as warped as his own twisted imagination and one woman's ability to fellate a man with such vigour that his teeth pop out the end of his knob (Don't be so alarmed, its a pun on the idea of feeling a woman's teeth while receiving a blow job!) This warping of reality, understandably, extends to body parts; women are portrayes as having extremely large breasts and prominent posteriors, while men are often shown as short, red-faced, and with noses the size and shape of a pickaxe. This is, of course, deliberate; by comparing the almost goddess-like women in his strips with their lumpen male counterparts, M. Reiser not only evokes the smut of British seaside postcards, but also makes the varied male deviancies all the more ridiculous, despite, as we have seen already, their half-logic used to justify them. The strip in which a stereotypical young couple with 2.4 children and a stable income express out-and-out horror at the sight of their in-laws (both of whom are over 65 and retired) doing it like rabbits in a variety of positions and then expressing further horror the next morning at those same in-laws embracing and conducting normal familial relations with their grandchildren "après ce qu'ils ont fait cette nuit avec leurs vieilles bouches" (Transl: "After what they did last night with their aged mouths") is a prime example of this. It makes us ask ourselves who are truly the filthy "détraques" in this situation - the parents, who watched with increasing horror at the sexual athletics of their elders, or the grandparents, who were conducting healthy and wholesome sexual relations with each other?
This, of course, begs the question, is it porn? Certainly, I wouldn't recommend Phantasmes to anybody who would be easily offended. Even I was taken aback by some of its contents upon reading it at first! Yet, in my view, the collection steers itself well clear of pornography, simply because it's not meant to be erotic. Yes, it shows some pretty prurient stuff, but not in the "XXX Hardcore FREE TOUR!!!" context of, erm, adult, websites. Rather, it shows a really quite satirical snapshot of people's sexual behaviours at that time, and the memes and stereotypes that often cropped up in other such portrayals. Indeed, Phantasmes even goes so far as to introduce new ideas to that particular genre. The cartoon in which a wife becomes offended by her husband because, in a cunning reversal of the sexually inadequate man meme, he suddenly exhibits enough sexual stamina to bring her to orgasm no less than four times in one session, since she thinks that he's drugged himself, and she threatens to have his urine analysed.
Phantasmes is not for everyone, as I have said. But for those singular reprobates like myself who have a truly unhealthy interest in other people's sexual habits, Phantasmes provides sexual satire and humour of a surprisingly high level. Indeed, I still have to understand some of its finer subtleties yet!